Here’s a bit more on the theme of the last two posts — the unsustainable anxiety of those who believe that “obedience” to God’s Law requires them to do the opposite of what their conscience is telling them to do — prompted by two videos recently posted by bloggers I enjoy.
The first is from Kimberly Knight of Coming Out Christian who introduces this clip from America’s Got Talent with a warning that it might make you a bit teary:
If you can’t watch that video, it features Jonathan Allen, 20, of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., who tells the story of being kicked out of his parents’ house on his 18th birthday because he’s gay. He relates that background in his introduction to his Talent audition — shocking and dismaying the panel of celebrity judges.
“That’s a terrible story,” Howie Mandel says, and it’s hard to disagree.
After the kid brings the crowd to its feet — Jonathan’s got some pipes — Howard Stern said, “I don’t know if your parents are watching tonight, but I would like to say to them, ‘What a wonderful son you have.'”
And you realize, watching this, that what you’ve just seen is a lop-sided moral dispute in which two devoutly religious believers, acting on their idea of “obedience” to a holy God, have been publicly put to shame by Howie Mandel and Howard Stern.
Let that sink in. When your religious beliefs and actions cause you to lose the moral high ground to Howard Stern, then something has gone horribly wrong with your religion.
The other video that helps to illustrate how American evangelicalism has come to be racked by the opposing strains of “obedience” and conscience is from Darrell Dow of Stuff Fundies Like, and it’s not quite as inspiring or lovely as Jonathan Allen’s audition. This one is an earnest church trio’s rendition of Lanny Wolfe’s* “My House Is Full (But My Field Is Empty)” — a staple of missions/evangelism guilt-trips that will be familiar to anyone who’s been a part of the American evangelical subculture in recent decades:
That song captures the guilt-driven evangelism obligation that is, for many evangelical Christians, the first disturbing experience of a conflict between conscience and what we’re told obedience requires. Maybe it was door-to-door evangelism, or maybe it was “street” evangelism, or tract-bombing passers-by on the sidewalk or the Boardwalk. The experience was unpleasant and you dreaded having to do it, but you were told that it was your Christian duty. If you shirked that duty, you would be responsible for those lost souls being damned to Hell for eternity.
That message worked on me, at first. I was not ashamed of Christ — I loved Christ. And if loving Christ meant I had to go out and perform a series of rude, clumsy, off-putting confrontations with strangers, then I’d just have to suck it up, set aside my discomfort and do my duty. “Who will go and work for me today?” I will — even if the thought of doing so makes my stomach hurt.
It took quite a while for me to realize that queasy feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with nerves or fear or a lack of faith or being “ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” That queasy feeling was my conscience reminding me of Rule No. 1 and pleading with me not to be a jerk. That was why I didn’t want to knock on doors or walk up to strangers on the sidewalk or distribute tracts to wary passers-by — because those things made me feel like a jerk. Why? Because acting like a jerk tends to make one feel like a jerk.
Contextless, cold-calling, hard-sales evangelism almost always and almost inevitably entails acting like a jerk. It involves treating other people as objects rather than as subjects. It involves forcing onto them an experience that none of us would want to have forced onto ourselves.
But I did it. I knocked on doors, I passed out the tracts. I did what I honestly believed obedience required me to do, even when my conscience was screaming at me to stop, just please, for the love of God, stop.
It’s a lose-lose situation. When conscience and “obedience” are pulling in opposite directions, guilt is inescapable. Your stomach hurts because your behavior toward others seems unloving, yet you’re unable to correct that because obedience tells you that to be “truly loving” to others will require you to double-down on that behavior.
Unless or until you find a way to reconcile conscience and obedience — to get them pulling in the same direction — something’s gotta give.
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* In defense of Lanny Wolfe, here’s Sandy Patti and Larnelle Harris singing Wolfe’s biggest hit, “More Than Wonderful” which is really good despite — or maybe because of — the fact that it’s also immensely cheesy. It’s like having Barry Manilow and Dianne Warren as the church music directors in charge of a worship team led by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle (or maybe led by Jordan Peele and Jane Lynch).